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Welcome to music of the first world war Era—Page 3

in flew enza

Flu was not restricted to the troops. At least 550 thousand American civilians perished of flu in the ten months prior to the end of hostilities in November, 1918. Doctors and public health officials were helpless to prevent the illness or alleviate suffering. People walked the streets wearing cloth masks for protection, but porous masks were useless against a virus-borne disease. Many fell where they stood on corners or in schools or offices only to be carried away to a hospital and die that night or one or two days later, drowning from lungs filled with their own blood. Whole families were wiped out in a matter of days. Virtually no one was spared the loss of a family member, friend, or acquaintance. Newspapers were comparing the epidemic to the Black Plague. Sinister accusations were made against the Kaiser by those who held that the Germans had planted the flu as an act of biological warfare.

Wartime conditions exacerbated the calamity because of overcrowding; many more became sick than otherwise might have. People had to work in together in factories and offices; they traveled throughout the U.S. on war-related missions, carrying diseases. The disaster struck small towns and backwoods villages as hard or harder than population centers. Recruits who signed up in hamlets mingled in training camps with draftees from the big city and took leave in exciting places that prior to the war they'd only dreamed about visiting. Ironically, contraction and mortality rates were highest among those in the prime of life—those of draft age—vigorous and healthy men and women with the most to look forward to in life.

Throughout the final months of the war the public read constantly of the pandemic in newspapers, but gatherings like parades and wartime rallies continued; the war had to come first. They put on a brave face and carried on, despite the knowledge that people were dying. Troops continued to be drafted into crowded training camps and shipped abroad on crowded troop carriers; no other course could be considered. The public suffered along with the troops and without complaint. They seemed to accept their lot almost in silence.

Ordinarily, one expects a scourge like the flu epidemic to find its way into music. Although war songs like Over There were played and sung everywhere, oddly the only noteworthy music to come out of the influenza experience was a child's singsong verse set to the vapid rhythm of a skip rope. It went:

I had a bird,

Its name was Enza,

I opened the window,

And in flew Enza.

Overnight in 1918, the flu became a worldwide pandemic. Tens of thousands of American civilians were dying of it, even as the war raged on overseas. English civilians and military personnel caught it from American soldiers shipped to their country. American soldiers probably gave it to the German troops they opposed; it decimated their ranks. The German army accused the Americans of intentionally infecting them. theyin turn gave it to the German civilian population. Troops and civilians of many nations and continents carried it with them to outposts and back home.

All told, at least 30 million, mostly civilians, died of the flu all over the world in places as far removed from the battlefront as South Africa, the West Indies, Canada, and New Zealand. Some estimates put the death toll among civilians at 50 million. By the time the great flu epidemic of 1918 began to fade in the U.S. in November, the disease had infected most of the human species. By comparison, 8-1/2 million soldiers were killed in combat.

No wonder the War was a breeding ground for social upheaval. At the war's start, Americans believed that science and industry could reach almost any heights and Americans could accomplish anything they set their minds to. The European war was a temporary setback. Once American troops set foot in Europe, it wouldn't be long before they would easily turn the tide of battle. Then America could get on with fulfilling its rightful destiny.

The War was a rude awakening; 1918 put an end to optimism. Science and industry had failed to stop the influenza epidemic and had created poison gas, tanks, airplanes, and machineguns. Monarchy, despotism, and the old ways had been swept aside but what was to take their place? Millions had died for a lost cause, or worse, for no cause. A generation of brilliant men and women had been decimated. The physically and mentally maimed were condemned to hobble in the streets for the rest of their lives. The economy of Europe was a shambles. Life was cheap.

As a result of their war experiences and the social upheaval of the time, the generation of men and women who came of age during or immediately following World War I became cynical, disillusioned, and without cultural or emotional stability. theybecame known as the Lost Generation. They were to number among them people like American writers Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Passos. To them, life was a vacuum. That the old world had died was a certainty; they knew of nothing that could take its place. If a new age was dawning, no one could quite tell what it might bring.

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The Great Flu Epidemic Of 1918

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